On board London's 'spectacular' Elizabeth line as long-delayed route prepares to open

New east-west railway will open on May 24 after £19bn of spending and years of postponements

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London’s most delayed train is about to arrive roughly four years behind schedule, but the city’s transport chief Andy Byford believes it will be “the envy of the world” when passengers eventually get on board.

The Elizabeth line, a 100-kilometre east-to-west railway first dreamt up when the queen after whom it is named was a young princess, will open its central tunnels this month as a £19 billion ($23bn) project whirrs into life at last.

Its sleek fleet of trains will take commuters from the financial centres of the City of London and Canary Wharf to the Victorian surroundings of Paddington and, when the line’s western arm is linked up in the autumn, to Heathrow Airport.

Empty nine-car trains already glide through its stations at five-minute intervals after 15 months of testing, their drivers ready to replace their lonely vigils with what insiders expect to be 200 million passengers a year.

The nine-minute, air-conditioned ride through the centre is likely to be a relief from the overheated conditions on a slower east-west artery, the Central line, while the journey from the City to Heathrow will take less than 40 minutes.

And the 21st-century feel of the line, with its TV displays and automated doors, is meant as an upgrade to London’s 159-year-old rapid transit network – although pulling off the digital wizardry was what held it up for so long.

While the tunnelling was complete and the stations largely built by the time the current queen was meant to open the line in 2018, Mr Byford said his predecessors at Transport for London had underestimated the task of getting its software ready.

“This has been a labour of love,” he said in the cavernous Elizabeth line annexe of Paddington, where The National boarded for a preview ride on Wednesday. “There’s been myriad challenges but we’ve stared them down”.

Long road to opening

London has about a dozen railway terminuses handling trains from all over Britain, but only two lines make a complete north-south crossing and until now there has been no east-west line.

An idea similar to Crossrail, as the Elizabeth line is also known, surfaced in the 1940s in a vision for post-war reconstruction but came to nothing. Another proposal in the 1990s ran into economic problems and was rejected by MPs.

The idea was revived after the turn of the millennium and finally received parliamentary approval in 2008, beginning 42 kilometres of tunnelling that required three paths to be beaten under the River Thames.

The name was chosen in 2016 and London Mayor Sadiq Khan has described its opening date as a landmark moment in the year Britain celebrates the queen’s platinum jubilee.

All the new stations in the city centre are 10 storeys deep and London’s tallest building, the 310-metre Shard, could have lain on its side in the empty Paddington cavern after it was hollowed out, said Crossrail chief executive Mark Wild.

The Elizabeth line will initially open in three sections before the 100-kilometre route is joined up. Photo: Transport for London

The platforms are 250 metres long and one station, Liverpool Street, is so large that it effectively merges with nearby Moorgate — an idea “shamelessly stolen” from a Paris rail network that insiders regard as a model, Mr Wild said.

Another unusual element is a diagonal lift at Liverpool Street, timed to move at the same speed as adjacent escalators and built because it proved too difficult to construct a vertical lift shaft.

The excavations required at Liverpool Street were so extensive that 3,000 skeletons were unearthed at the site, including the remains of City of London parishioners who died in the medieval Black Death.

“I think people will be blown away when they see the scale of these stations, the length of the platforms,” said Mr Byford, who took over as boss of Transport for London in 2020 and made finishing the Elizabeth line a priority.

The 2018 opening date slipped back several times before Crossrail chiefs eventually committed to unveiling the line in the first half of this year, last week announcing May 24 as the opening date.

Liverpool Street station has a diagonal lift that moves at the same speed as adjacent escalators. Victoria Pertusa / The National

One of the software challenges was integrating the new tunnels and signals with the existing tracks of London on either side, which give the Elizabeth line its full length, from Reading in the west to Shenfield in the east.

The line will initially be in three parts – from Shenfield into Liverpool Street, the central stretch to Paddington and the final section to Heathrow and Reading – before it is joined up in what insiders say will be a few months.

This is absolutely spectacular, what we’re about to unveil to Londoners
Andy Byford

It will not open on Sundays until that work is complete and Bond Street station near London’s upmarket shopping district is not yet ready for passengers. There will initially be 12 trains an hour, eventually doubling to 24.

A longer-term goal is to link Heathrow to the north of England with a connection to the High Speed 2 railway line, but that is many years from completion and has been partly scaled back by ministers.

While pedants argue over whether Crossrail is a new London Tube line or part of the National Rail network, Mr Wild believes it is “a bit of both”, combining rapid urban transit with the comforts of a longer-distance train.

A fleet of air-conditioned, nine-car trains will run on the Elizabeth line. Victoria Pertusa / The National

Mr Byford is proud of what he calls the modern, uncluttered and temperature-controlled environment on the platforms, believing commuters will feel welcome as they resume normal travel schedules after the pandemic.

The fleet of air-conditioned trains known as Class 345s were built especially for Crossrail and are intended to run for decades.

But designers also dropped in nods to London’s heritage, with brickwork in the Paddington ticket hall evoking the station’s Victorian design and a ceiling at Liverpool Street meant to depict the pinstripe suits of City bankers.

At Paddington, Mr Wild said it was an honour to open London’s newest train line in the same place that the Tube was born in 1863, when a stretch from Paddington to Farringdon became the world’s first underground railway.

Meanwhile, at Liverpool Street, the curving tunnels stand ready with posters advertising the reduced journey times, while signs to the Elizabeth line are on proud display after premature ones were sheepishly covered up in 2018.

“This is absolutely spectacular, what we’re about to unveil to Londoners, to the UK and also to the world,” said Mr Byford, who compared the new line to Japan’s famously punctual bullet trains. “This is our pride and joy.”

Updated: May 13, 2022, 10:19 AM